This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of Re-Imagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.
“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.” With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?
My body felt heavy, awkward. I did not actually want to dance. Staying safely curled up in the soft cushions of the chair, cocooned in a warm blanket, seemed far more appealing. So I did something I do not usually allow myself to do. When called forward to dance I asked if I could wait. To see when, or even if, my body had any desire to come out of its instinct to remain hidden and safely nestled in obscurity.
I waited. Beautiful bodies danced before me. I waited longer. I witnessed. Now? Almost. . .
Stop planning, I told myself. Stop trying to control this moment, or know what moves you think you know how to make.
I waited. The waiting turned into something else. Waiting. Ah. . . that’s when you know you’ve somehow moved to the edge of your seat.
My feeling of inward hesitation led me to surrender all mental control of what I was supposed to do next. If I didn’t want to dance I didn’t want to plan it either. I stepped forward, not knowing what song momentarily would come to fill the swollen silence that now held me in subdued anticipation. In those brief, still moments I moved about, first contemplating a chair in the corner, then leaning against the wall, and finally just sitting with my knees tucked up on the floor. I wrapped myself in a long piece of fur. I could bring my inwardness and hesitation into the heart of this unstarted dance, holding myself in warmth and comfort even here.
Then the music began. Then the music began to move me. I had nothing to do. My body somehow knew how to follow.
With each beat one shoulder, then the other, moved a little. The fur slipped down, inch by inch. As my movement unfolded I felt I was being led, led by sound and the intelligence of my body riding those musical waves. The fur stayed with me, followed me, like it too had its own dance it wished to play out upon my body. Few thoughts arose, only points of memory-formation, tagging this moment or that for posterity. Not all stayed with me. Much of this dance is a blur that whirled away into the moments that drew the dance forth from me. Somehow I moved from the floor to the wall. My body, the fur, the music, all knew what to do. I did not. Nor did I need to.
Sensation led me forward, leaving the support of the wall. The metal pole stretching from ceiling to floor, an arboreal axis, called me forward. Giving myself the mental option never to dance with this powerful object during the course of this song allowed the desire instead to co-arise between my body and the music. As I walked toward the pole the fur dragged behind me; it left my grasp without thought the moment I no longer needed its comfort and support.
The pole calls forth spirals and swirls, a spinning energy that can only exist between flexibility and stability. I do not know how I danced, but only that my body was sending ripples of exuberance through my consciousness, a recognition that I was doing what I could not plan. I ascended the stretch of metal a foot, two, three, with a feeling like the internal inch of a caterpillar along a vertical branch. Seated above the ground I let my hands go, trusting the security of my legs, spreading my wings behind me. A caterpillar no more, I opened myself into metamorphosis, descending to the rhythm of a musical heartbeat.
“Breathing is our very first teaching—a silent teaching—in the way of interdependency, continuity, relationship, giving and receiving. Our first teaching is one of perfect integration, harmony, non-duality. Breathing comes naturally; it is so rudimentary that it requires no action of volition, no attention or thought. But, for that very reason, the wisdom of breathing is the most difficult, and the very last to be learned.” – David Michael Levin
Do not put a butterfly in a bell jar,
She is no rose.
No still whorl of petals,
No silent standing stem
To be gazed at from without,
To be denied an inner landscape
What is this translucent glass,
This invisible barring shield?
Does it keep her safe,
Preserve her from decay?
While a rose’s petals will fall,
A butterfly’s soul
Will not stay.
A life’s breath is finite
When thus closed in.
A life’s breath is finite
When one is shut in.
When all the air’s depleted
What new may
Each wing beat a breath,
Each breath a wing beat
In her fluttering breast.
Count each beat,
Count each rest,
Count each moment,
For Self begins in breath.
Breathe deep, wingéd soul,
Sing your heartfelt song.
Expand this element
That you are,
Expand your heart
Beyond the confines
Of this bell jar.
Two images I see
When I say “glass blown”:
A shattering crash
Of splintered glass,
As air forces through
And you fly to the
Or softer yet, though dangerous
A warmth, a temperance
Melts the glass from within,
Melting out, melting forth,
Each wing beat a breath,
Each breath a wing beat
In her fluttering breast.
Count each beat,
Count each rest,
Count each moment,
Now Self begins in breath.
Levin, David Michael. “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing.” Research in Phenomenology 14 (1984): 121-147.
 David Michael Levin, “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing,” Research in Phenomenology 14 (1984): 129.
As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.
I began to breathe deeply, as I never had before, sensing out my own sustainable rhythm, wondering if I had the strength for a full session of such intensity. My body began to rock back and forth with the force of my breath.
Soon the pain in my neck injury became overwhelmingly dominant, tensing my jaw and seizing up my mouth. I desperately tried to release it. I felt that this pain was all there was, and all this experience was going to be. The image of the place I injured myself appeared clearly in my mind, and began to feel a surge of anger for the burden of this injury. I cried burning, angry tears. My body started moving, to find any way to release the pain, stretching through various yoga poses and finally pushing my head into the ground. I asked to have my neck pressed against, while I pushed back with all the frustration and anger of built-up pain. With a yell that surprised the quieter side of myself, I felt spent, and dropped to the floor. Curiously, the pain seemed gone.
Pale greens and blues appeared below me. I was a butterfly, with the orange and black patterning of a monarch. I was drifting over a pond, seemingly endless: a sky blue pond covered in a sheen of green plants.
I lay on my back and felt my belly swell, pregnant with the whole Earth. I could see the oceans and shapes of the continents in their rich colors across the surface of my skin. A question kept running through my head: “How do you give birth to the entire Earth?”
I sat up and felt myself transforming into a tree, my hair going deep into the earth as roots seeking out the waters at the heart of planet. My arms extended toward the sky and sunlight as growing branches.
As the music shifted, I plunged into tropical seas, still in the form of a butterfly, yet able to easily swim through the waters. A great whale appeared before me, swimming with me, over me, around me, twisting and diving. It was a dance through the undulating waves. I learned how to keep breathing beneath the water, and also how to breach the surface for greater quantities of air. I saw a tropical volcanic island rising out the ocean beside us.
The whale and I dove down, deep into the purple-black depths of the ocean. I was not afraid, although I felt I should be. At the base of the volcanic mountain a small, glowing opening became visible. The whale entered and, a moment later, I followed.
Inside the volcano stood a column of glowing flame, reaching to the mountain’s summit. The whale was gone, yet seated by the inferno was a golden griffin, embodying the whale’s spirit. The griffin looked at me, then flew straight up the flames of the volcano and out of my sight.
I wanted to follow, yet found I could not fly. I saw I had arms and legs and though I still had butterfly wings they could not bear me through this heat. I looked up, not knowing how to proceed.
As though in answer to my question, a thin ladder descended to me. It was made of spun ropes of white light. I gained my footing and began to climb, continuously looking below as the floor of the volcano moved further and further from me.
As I reached the volcano’s top and ascended out of the mountain’s core, I realized the volcano was now dormant. The rim of the opening was covered in rich, green mosses and tiny white flowers. I ran my fingers along the edge, feeling the soft sponginess of the plants. I stepped out of the opening and began tentatively to descend along the rocky slope. A valley lay below me, with the turquoise sea along the shore to the left, and a line of hills and mountains to the right. I was looking at the world with which I had been pregnant.
As I departed the slopes of the volcano and entered the lush valley, I encountered the tree I had previously become. I looked at her and knew she was me, yet was also aware that my consciousness inhabited my current body. I lay down at the tree’s base, curled around the trunk. I felt my body transform into an earthworm, and began burrowing into the Earth, descending and burying myself deeper into the soil among the tree’s roots. I consumed the rich, moist earth and felt it pass along the length of my body.
After some time beneath the ground, I looked up at the tree and into its branches far above. Purple butterflies danced among the emerald green leaves. I longed to join them. I started to climb through the rough bark of the tree, inching my way along, until I became aware I was now a little, fuzzy caterpillar, climbing up the trunk, hoping to reach the branches and the dancing butterflies.
I found a branch, my branch, and hung off of it. I began creating a dark cocoon around myself. It was sightless black inside, yet after some time within the chrysalis a peach glow filled my sight. The space was dark and light, ebony and warm pink, in the same moment. I lay there, waiting, for an eternal expanse of time.
My physical arm was wrapped around my body and my hand rested on my left shoulder blade. My hand was tingling with numbness, and I felt this tingle spread from my hand throughout my back, the growing pains of wings sprouting. I lay still within my cocoon.
Slowly, so slowly, I at last started to emerge, but the crack in my chrysalis let in cold air. I was not yet ready to encounter the world.
At last the time came for my debut into the great world. I crawled out and perched on a branch. I sat there for a long time, perfectly still, with my wings spread open wide. Then, with the aid of a soft gust of wind, I fluttered onto a breeze and truly flew for the first time.
I dipped and soared over purple and yellow fields, through white dandelion puffs, and over a sparkling, indigo river that hugged the roots of the encroaching hills and mountains. Riding an air current, I was carried to the mountain summits, and viewed an unknown land beyond. Small cottages dotted the pastoral landscape. A stone church with lavender glass windows stood on a rosy slope.
I alighted on the church threshold. I was colored entirely white, with a human body and expansive, ivory wings. Barefoot, I walked into the dark, empty interior of this place of worship. I danced on my toes along the aisle, both defying and paying homage to this sacred space.
Beating my wings, I ascended up through the church toward one of the open windows and perched on the ledge. I looked below me to the stone church floor, then gazed out the window into the twilit landscape.
I took wing again, and flew into a majestic redwood forest, passing between the massive, ancient trunks as a tiny, bright butterfly. I began to hear the cries of those breathing around me, cries that sounded like every animal and every stage of human life. I felt their pain and knew it was my own; it was the pain of the entire Earth. Compassion and empathy poured from me like a warm stream, holding those around me, caring for these differed embodiments of our single universal soul.
I felt myself pregnant with the Earth once again and knew I had to birth it, to rebirth the Earth. How? I kept asking. How? I felt the immense responsibility of this task, knowing that if I did not accept it, no one would. But, how? Tears streamed from my eyes as I struggled to bear the weight of this realization.
I saw the whole Earth before me, suspended in blackness, and I fluttered around it as a giant monarch butterfly. I heard the joining of all voices; all sentient beings, every human and every animal, joined together in song. As they all sang together, I knew the Earth was healed. I cried to the depth of my being.
After a long period of resting, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, I found myself on a beach after sunset, the painted waves lapping around my ankles and calves. A tropical forest stood behind me. The waves were crashing, the trees swaying in a great wind. The trees began to fall, and I heard the wailing and mourning of the people who called the forest home. I stepped among the people in the forest and looked at the severed stump of a mighty tree. From the trunk’s center a shoot began to grow: fresh, supple and spring green, crowned with a single white flower. There always remained hope, I communicated to the people around me.
I stepped alone into a forest pool lit by moonlight and bathed, drinking deeply straight from the pouring waterfall.
I found myself again among the same tribe, and together we began to walk. I was leading them out of the forest and up a steep hill. As we reached the hill’s crest, a vast plain spread before us out to the sea. The sun hung low in the sky, coloring the landscape ruddy gold. These rich grasslands were to be our new home.
I was transported into the night slums of an endless, ruined city. Trash and broken glass, twisted metals and decrepit houses filled my entire vision. Once again I was the white being with ivory butterfly wings, and I stepped barefoot through the destruction before me. Shades passed silently among the buildings, indicating the presence of other beings, wrapped in tragedy.
Looking into the sky I saw this wreckage was illuminated by the full moon. Stepping onto a moonbeam I walked upward into the sky to dance with the moon. I felt as though I were escaping, yet when I looked below I saw green plants growing up between the cracks, covering and weaving together the broken world below. I looked around myself and danced among the silver gems of stars and the hanging pearl of the moon. I danced until my breathing slowed and I came to rest within my own body once again.